Friday, February 10, 2012

Pluralism, Parenthood, Contraception and Roman Catholicism

Many issues in the past couple of weeks have accumulated faster than I have written about them. I hope not faster than you have had a time to think about them. That’s been hard, however, because of whose voices are chosen to not only express their views but to frame the issues in the media. Therefore the challenge: create places for conversation where people can think and talk and explore deeply the issues and to carry out ministry in this public, pluralistic society.

Planned Parenthood in the past few years has suffered growing attacks, countess false accusations that have hindered its ability to offer services to those who need them most: women with few if any other resources for women’s health care particularly reproductive care. With a target on its back, the public was beginning to believe, “Planned Parenthood is bad.” Then came the backlash to the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s pulling its funding. I am among those contributors to Planned Parenthood. I’ve seen and experienced its service, offering contraceptive advice and help for decades. It wasn’t a matter, as one news broadcast framed it, of “two titans battling it out.” Indeed “war” is the very last image women want to use. It’s about birth, not death. By the end of the week many women wanted to know that these two organizations could be ways women could be united in working for women’s health. There are issues that remain, of course, about board membership, etc., but more than that, I think questions remain for us to think about:

How can we as people of faith work together so that parenthood is a joint responsibility?

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, already 20 years ago, in one of its earliest social statements deliberations, adopted by a 2/3 majority at its churchwide assembly in Orlando Florida in 1991 a Social Statement on Abortion. It begins with acknowledging our unity and our diversity within the church and goes on to state up front that the Church is in support of life. It says that the “church recognizes parenthood as a vocation that women and men share.”

If one is not in favor of abortions, why not fully support knowledge about, access to, and responsibility for contraception by both men and women?

The ELCA Social Statement on Abortion reads:
“Prevention of unintended pregnancies is crucial in lessening the number of abortions. In addition to efforts within church and home, this church supports appropriate forms of sex education in schools, community pregnancy prevention programs, and parenting preparation classes. We recognize the need for contraceptives to be available, for voluntary sterilization to be considered, and for research and development of new forms of contraception.”

How might we shape the conversation to include care for children after birth?

The ELCA Social Statement on Abortion goes on:
“Many women choose abortion in a desperate attempt to survive in a hostile social environment. In order to affirm the value of life and reduce the number of abortions, it is essential for us as a church to work to improve support for life in society.

"Greater social responsibility for the care, welfare, and education of children and families is needed through such measures as access to quality, affordable health care, child care, and housing. Sufficient income support for families needs to be provided by employers, or, in the case of the unemployed, through government assistance. As a society we need to provide increased support for education, nutrition, and services that protect children from abuse and neglect.
“Because parenthood is a vocation that women and men share, this church supports public and private initiatives to provide adequate maternity and paternity leaves, greater flexibility in the work place, and efforts to correct the disparity between the incomes of men and women.”

Why are prominent men still given the most voice in decision-making concerning women’s bodies? (As I write this blog, the news report that the Obama administration this afternoon might come to some accommodation with the Roman Catholic Church is headlined, “Will the Catholic bishops be satisfied?”)

The ELCA Social Statement of 20 years ago says: (And we ask, where are we today?)
"In the case of abortion, public policy has a double challenge. One is to be effective in protecting prenatal life. The other is to protect the dignity of women and their freedom to make responsible decisions in difficult situations. Pursuing those ends is particularly formidable because our society is so divided on this issue, and because women, people of color, and those of low income are so under-represented in legislative and judicial processes. In its advocacy regarding these issues, this church should exert every effort to see that the needs of those most directly affected, particularly the pregnant woman and the life in her womb, are seriously considered in the political process."

And there are more questions for our conversation about the church’s vocation in the public world:

What are our responsibilities in making sure that all people have access to affordable, quality health care?

How do we shape the questions and the conversations in ways that men and women are equally responsible for their sexuality and their sexual relationships?

Why don’t we see as many advertisements on TV for contraceptives as we do for Viagra?

How far have we come and what do we still need to do to make sure that women and their bodies are not kept captive in male-dominated power systems?

Since men are taking a more full role in male-female relationships in the public as well as private life, how do we support such men and hold these caring, life-sustaining, mutually accountable partnerships up as role-models in a world that still fears women in full partnership with men?

How do we uphold single people and people of differing sexual orientations as well as heterosexual married couples in their commitments to lives of faithful vocation?

How do we live together as people of many different faith traditions with different values and ethics, respecting one another’s beliefs without imposing ours on others?

I have been wanting to say something about what I think should be clear by now, but obviously is not: we live in a pluralistic society in which all of us in many ways are called upon to help fund things which we may not need, want, or might well be against. Diana Butler Bass has said it well her blog February 7, 2012. I quote parts of it here:

“….everyone knows that we now live in a fully pluralistic society—and that religious pluralism raises some serious questions about the Catholic Church’s plea to be exempted from providing access to birth control at institutions employing and serving the larger public. These questions go to the heart of what is means to be a faithful believer and a good citizen.

“There are millions of religious Americans who pay taxes or follow government regulations that support something to which they morally object. Quakers and Mennonites pay taxes for the military and often serve in non-combat settings during war. Jewish and Muslim taxes support subsidies for pork farmers and shrimp fisheries. Mainline Protestants provide public funds to faith-based groups who convert people away from liberal Protestant churches. Christian Scientist taxes go to Medicare and the National Institutes of Health. Fundamentalists support student loan programs for future ministers at Harvard Divinity School. Atheists fund military chaplains. LGBT Christians and Jews pay the salaries of judges who rule against their desire to marry. Is the government trampling upon the religious liberties of all these people, too? No. All these groups practice their faith in tension or tandem with ethical commitments without accusing others of bigotry.

“Catholics might think that they are being singled out having their money go to something that offends them. They are not. The success of American Catholicism means that Catholics are not special and they get to be treated like everyone else. We all pay for things we like; we all pay for things we don’t like. Everybody is offended by something, somewhere, by some program, somehow. The American ethical conscience often bends like a reed in a complicated, diverse society.

“Americans put up with the offense for a very good reason: The government is not a church. The government attempts to represent the interests and well-being of the whole public by providing military defense, helping farmers, assisting those who serve prisoners and the poor, caring for the elderly, fostering scientific research, supporting students, and giving soldiers someone to talk to or pray with on the battlefield. And yes, part of the public good is that women get to choose if and when they have babies. The government funds all this with a common pool of tax money and a mix of public and private services without theological tests available to all Americans—no matter what Quakers, Mennonites, Jews, Muslims, Methodists and Episcopalians and Lutherans, Christian Scientists, Southern Baptists, atheists, or even Roman Catholics think, teach, and proclaim in their traditions and congregations. Everybody participates. And everybody works out the tensions in creative, faithful, and theologically rich ways. Indeed, the tensions are the source of American religious vitality.

“It is easy to accuse the government of violating religious freedom. But what, exactly, is a secular government to do? Set up the Governmental Office of Theological Ethics to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whose taxes go for what programs, develop a strategy for exemptions, determine which institutions serve the public and which do not, adjudicate between conflicting moral and religious systems, punish those who step on another’s ethical prohibition? Do only the biggest religious groups get the government to assuage their ethical qualms? Or, should we bag secular government altogether and become a theocracy? Should government services be earmarked on a percentage basis toward the religious affiliation of taxpayers? Perhaps all religious groups should become sects and provide services for only those who share their theological views.

“Or maybe we should keep working at the restless and ever-evolving tension between being religious freedom and separation of church and state in our wildly diverse nation.

“This isn’t a war on religion. It is just America.”

And one more question of mine:
What difference has it made for us all,women and men,that in the ELCA we now have women bishops, women cleargy, men and women on every roster and laity fully participating in our framing of social statements?